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Ivy Day 2021 Welcome Remarks

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College


Watch on Facebook: President McCartney’s remarks start at 20:44.

Good afternoon and welcome. Happy Ivy Day!

I am so excited to be able to say those words to you.

Rain symbolizes change, renewal, fertility and life. It is interpreted as a very positive omen in many cultures around the world. Rain has a soothing effect on the body and soul, which in turn can help attract more good luck into your life. Now maybe you feel like Smith is getting a little too much good luck today, but we are all together, and that’s what matters. 

Every year, when I stand on this stage, I am struck by the view.

But this year, in particular, I am moved to see you in person, in your Ivy Day whites, holding your red roses. Traditions matter—now more than ever.

To the parents, families, friends and alums watching around the world: we wish you could be with us. We feel your joy and thank you for the support you have shown the graduates during these challenging times.

Class of 2021, today we celebrate you!

We celebrate your place in the long arc of Smith’s history ...
We celebrate your extraordinary accomplishments ...

And we celebrate your friendships and the powerful connections that will endure long after you leave this special place.

Savor this moment.

You are all links in a remarkable chain of change makers and barrier breakers, artists and activists, teachers and scholars, whose ambitions were activated right here at Smith.

More importantly, you are part of a community that cares deeply for one another. The generosity and compassion you all have displayed over the past year, when things were far from normal, reinforces what I have long believed—that Smith is a college unlike any other.

You are part of it, and Smith is a part of you, forever.

Ordinarily, you would be seated this morning among alumnae celebrating their Reunions, including the 50th Reunion class. The class of 1971 wanted you to know that they are here in spirit. In fact, they sent a letter to the class of 2021 that I am pleased to read to you now:

Our graduation in 1971 came after four years of incredible changes in our country, on our campus and in our lives. When Gloria Steinem told us in her Commencement Speech, “We will revolutionize this system ... we will humanize it,” we listened, and we have worked to make waves of change.

Coming together after 50 years, we know there is much we missed and still more unfinished. But the waves we’ve made have ripples. Our second wave has moved into a third and the third into a fourth. Now we pass this on to you.

Through our Connect ’21 program, a number of us have made wonderful, personal connections with you, connections we hope will last the rest of our lives. We wish we could be here in person to celebrate your graduation.

To all of you we send our love, congratulations and admiration. We are confident you will bring us closer to the world we all yearn to see.

Ride on our waves, go to new heights. And think of us at YOUR 50th Reunion in 2071! (It’s going to happen!)

We have a member of the class of 1971 here, Professor Kiki Smith from the theatre department. She helped write this. Stand up and give us a wave, Kiki!

As you begin your journey away from this campus, I am sure you have many questions. Some are small and immediate, like, “How am I going to fit all of my stuff in the back seat of my family’s car?” Others are much bigger, like, “What is my purpose in this world?” Of course, it’s OK not to know the answers to these questions.

Throughout my adult life, whether in celebration or sorrow, certainty or indecision, joy or grief, I have turned to poetry for answers. As Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Through voice, imagery, rhyme and meter, poets do indeed help us discover life’s nuanced—and often paradoxical—meaning. For this reason, poetry is a near daily practice for me.

This has been especially true since the pandemic, when myriad challenges required all of us, at least on some days, to make meaning from our reflections on the value of this life. 

In that spirit, I would like to read a poem that an alum shared with me in the dead of winter.

The poem was written by the pacifist and former poet laureate William Stafford, and it is boldly titled “The Way It Is.”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.[*]

As I contemplated this past academic year, I thought about Stafford’s poem a great deal.

I have felt despair at the separation from my family and friends, only to find comfort from FaceTiming with the special people in my life, especially my five grandchildren. How can I feel despair when my 18-month-old granddaughter routinely grabs the cell phone so she can kiss my image?

I have felt the pressure of work, which became crisis management, requiring constant scenario planning with my team, only to realize that our efforts have never mattered more for Smith. How can I feel pressure while working alongside a dream team on behalf of this remarkable college?

And when morning breaks overcast for the third day in a row, I have felt the melancholy that sometimes accompanies the clouds, only to see that bald eagle circling the Mill River. How can I feel blue when nature’s beauty is omnipresent, even on cloudy days?

In his poem, Stafford reminds us of life’s existential challenges—however, he offers us a thread, something to hold. Stafford doesn’t define “the thread you follow,” instead, he invites each of us to discover it for ourselves. For me, the thread is grace, unearned love, given and received. I have held onto my thread this past year with a tight grasp. And it has been there when I have needed it, so that I could choose hope, equanimity and delight—even during a pandemic.

For the rest of our lives, we will reflect on how we made it through the pandemic, how we made it through the uncertainty. Some day, you will tell your grandchildren about life at college during the pandemic. And when my grandchildren are old enough to ask me about this year, I will tell them it was the year I found my thread—invisible and unbreakable.

Thank you.

Seniors, enjoy your Ivy Day.

I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow at Commencement.

Now I would like to invite SGA President Esther Mejia to the stage to deliver the expression of gratitude.

* William Stafford, “The Way It Is” in The Way It Is (Minneapolis, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1998).